Board of Trustees

Pa. senators ramp up calls for Penn State governance reforms

Even if Penn State changes its bylaws to remove the governor as a voting member of its board of trustees, state law says that position still gets a vote, according to one lawmaker.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, said Wednesday that state law gives the General Assembly the exclusive power to change the governor’s role on the board, and he challenged that the university had the authority to do so. His comments came during a news conference where he and three fellow Senate Democrats lobbed criticism at Penn State and called on their Republican counterparts to work toward more governance reforms at the university.

“We need to quicken the pace of reform and make sure there is board accountability to not only the university but also to all taxpayers who back Penn State with their tax dollars,” Dinniman said.

The issue over the governor’s voting power was one example Dinniman and his fellow senators used in making the case that lawmakers, and not the university’s board, have the final say over who controls the reins at Penn State.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers, reached later Wednesday, disagreed with Dinniman about lawmakers’ assertions. She said Penn State was given the equivalent of a nonprofit charter in 1874, and that allows the university to amend its charter and articles of incorporation without legislation.

“Thus, Penn State’s board of trustees has the authority to amend its corporate charter/articles of incorporation under the Nonprofit Corporation Law,” she said.

For Dinniman, Wednesday’s call to action was an attempt to get attention for two pieces of legislation he sponsored but which have since languished as other matters, such as the state budget, take over in importance. One of the bills, Senate Bill 410, calls for more extreme governance reforms compared with those the university has already approved, such as 12-year term limits, an expanded conflict of interest policy for trustees and raising the number of trustees needed for a quorum from 13 to 16.

Dinniman and the three other senators — John Yudichak, Rob Teplitz and Jay Costa — were critical of the reforms already adopted at Penn State. The senators said they are renewing their call for GOP help at the time of year that lawmakers are considering approving the $279 million funding from the state. That funding, though, is not at stake, the senators said.

Yudichak, D-Luzerne, derided the board’s recent reforms as “lukewarm attempts” to regain the university’s confidence. He said Penn State, and other state-related universities, must be subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law, too.

“The board of trustees cannot weave back and forth between a private mindset when it does not want to talk about transparency and accountability and then weave back to a public mindset when they want the support of taxpayer-funded dollars,” said Yudichak, who in March denounced the Freeh report and wanted the university to try to get the NCAA sanctions reduced.

Teplitz, D-Dauphin, said the governor cannot volunteer to be removed as a voting member, and he questioned whether Corbett’s successor would have the same feeling. The General Assembly must take up the matter, he said.

“It’s not enough for the governor to decide voluntarily that he’s going to no longer participate as a voting member of the board,” Teplitz said. “It is really shirking your job responsibilities as long as it is in statute.”

The senators said they would like to have hearings over the summer and legislation to consider in the fall.

Outside the Capitol, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said Penn State’s reforms were steps in the right direction, and he does not support government stepping into the university’s governance the way the Democrats were proposing.

Dinniman’s bill on governance reform would completely remove the president from the board of trustees and strip the governor’s three cabinet members of their voting powers. The secretaries for the departments of agriculture, education, and conservation and natural resources have seats on the board.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, in December proposed legislation that would have changed the size of the trustees board, limited the university president’s powers and made the Penn State subject to the state’s open-records law.

Penn State officials have championed the in-house reforms.

At the board meeting in May when the governance reforms were approved, trustee Joel Myers said, “In one fell swoop, it’s probably the biggest change to the bylaws that we’ve made in 100 years. Many institutions don’t make this change at all, certainly over decades.”

The board’s next meeting will be July 11-12 at the campus on the outskirts of Uniontown, Fayette County. There, the board is expected to adopt tuition rates for the next school year.